Stalking Cheap Eats in Stratford, Ontario

Madelyn's is a real find in the search for cheap eats in Stratford, Ontario.

Stratford, Ontario, is known for two things, world-class theatre in the form of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and world-class cuisine in the form of a slew of high-end restaurants. If you want to eat high off the hog (and by the way the area around Stratford has some of the best suppliers of pork products in North America) while feeding your soul on Shakespeare’s poetry, you won’t be disappointed.

Be warned, though. A steady diet of fine dining can easily cost as much as your theatre tickets and bed and breakfast accommodations – combined.

The best of the best

At the very pinnacle of haut cuisine are Rundles and The Old Prune, the former in an ultra modern setting close by the Avon River and the latter in a renovated private home a short distance away. I have yet to sample either, one reason being that the bill for a couple, with wine, taxes, and tip can easily top $300. Still, if you want to take a chance on being seated next to Christopher Plummer or Brian Bedford supping with other glitterati, these are the places to head. Maybe next season.

A step down the price scale, but with food that often matches Rundles and the Prune, so I am told, are Pazzo and Bijou. Pazzo has a dual personality, a posh dining room upstairs and a more modestly priced and very noisy bistro downstairs featuring some very nice designer pizzas, which you can order to take out. Upstairs, calm reigns in a stylish black and white dining room with an ever-changing menu featuring local specialties and local suppliers.

Also on the locavore bandwagon is Bijou. Don’t let the almost anonymous location in an alley fool you, the food is excellent. As with Pazzo, the menu changes frequently, sometimes during the course of the evening. Bijou is especially strong on desserts, all house made.

A newcomer in this bracket, also unsampled as of yet, is Mercer Hall, the in-house restaurant of a new boutique hotel. Their prix fixe 3-course menu is tempting at $44 and they also offer a tapas-like “nosh” menu that won’t drain your exchequer. They have the virtue of staying open late most of the week, a boon for those intense after-theatre discussions.

Another bargain in the high-end food category is Rene’s Bistro, conveniently close to the Avon Theatre. They are known for their lamb shank and it is very good indeed.

Reservations are strongly recommended for all these restaurants, although I have noticed that Pazzo often can accommodate walk-ins.

The search for ‘cheap eats’

So that does it for the high-end, but one of my holy grails is the modestly priced restaurant that can give its more expensive competitors a run for their money, and I hoped to find some in Stratford. Alas, I am not the first to note that there is a distinct lack of solid middle-tier eateries in Stratford and those trying to eat well here while not dropping a bundle or compromising their culinary standards, as I attempted to do on a recent theatre-going visit, face a bit of a challenge.

I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive search, but here, for what it’s worth, are some observations on cheap eats in Stratford along with a genuine find. Most of the restaurants mentioned are in the downtown area surrounding Stratford’s picturesque town hall; this makes them especially convenient to the Avon Theatre and only somewhat less so to the Tom Patterson Theatre. There are no restaurants of any description super close to the Festival Theatre, but you can walk there from downtown in about 20 minutes or so.

I’ve always found burgers a fairly reliable way to eat cheap or at least for a modest price but unless you like your burgers well done, I’d advise against trying this strategy in Stratford. Local law mandates “medium well” for burgers and while some servers said that as long as I listened to their disclaimer and understood the risks the cook could accommodate my request for medium rare. It never happened and I gave up. If you like your burgers well done, Burgers on Downie, across the street from the Avon Theatre, is reputed to have the best in town.

A better choice is steaks at Foster’s Inn, next door to Burgers on Downie. They are excellent, can be ordered medium rare, and cost no more than steaks of this quality should cost. I should note that Foster’s burgers were as disappointing as those sampled elsewhere.

One of the best deals in the downtown area is the aforementioned pizzas at Pazzo’s downstairs bistro. If you can take the din, by all means eat in. But we used the take out option and far preferred it. Pizzas range from $14 to $16 and comfortably feed two.

Two bars provide reasonably priced meals that are unlikely to win raves from gourmets but will fill you up nicely and, depending on what you order, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised. I enjoy Bentley’s on Ontario Street more for its bar, friendly bartenders, and beer selection than for its food, but they do a decent goat cheese salad and the occasional sandwich special can be better then average. Another bar, with live music some nights, is Molly Bloom’s on Brunswick Street. They run occasional all-you-can-eat fish and chips specials and the fish the night I tried it wasn’t bad at all.

Also downtown are two Indian restaurants, Raja and Taj, just around the corner from one another. Of the two, Raja is more highly touted and the more expensive. I found both of them acceptable but not exceptional with price points slightly higher than what I’m used to paying for similar quality Stateside. Stratford Thai Cuisine on Wellington Street is perfectly adequate and it’s hard to complain about the cost of its $8.95 lunch special. They also deliver to most of Stratford.

And the winner is . . .

There was one inexpensive place where the quality of the food definitely placed it in “the find” category. We were put on to Madelyn’s Diner by someone who recommended it for fish and chips, which we didn’t wind up having. Instead we opted for

The Berkshire smoked pork chop is "fabulous."

the Berkshire smoked pork chop and the lemon broiled cod, both of which were fabulous, the pork especially. As noted earlier, Perth County, of which Stratford is the seat, boasts more than its fair share of pork providers and Madelyn’s lists its suppliers on the back of the menu.

Dessert was a warm pecan butter tart with vanilla ice cream and it was ambrosial. Butter tarts are a Canadian specialty and well worth the calories. All of Madelyn’s desserts, except for the lemon meringue pie, are made in house, with the freshest possible ingredients because Stratford sits bang in the middle of one of Canada’s most fertile farming regions.

We also learned that Madelyn’s has the distinction of being one of Justin Bieber’s favorite hangouts. When the local-boy-made-good returns, he often heads here resulting, I’m told, in a wall-to-wall teenybopper plague. There is some disagreement as to what Justin’s favorite meal is. One server told me it was peameal and poutine, while another insisted it was peameal and pancakes.

Peameal, by the way, is a lean, low-fat, slow-cured Canadian bacon, which has no relation, Canadians will be quick to tell

Peameal and poutine are Canadian favorites.

you, with what American’s call “Canadian bacon.” It’s delicious. Poutine is a concoction of French-Canadian origin, consisting of French fries, yellow cheese curds, and gravy. It is . . . well let me just say you should try it and decide for yourself. On a return visit, I opted for the peameal and poutine and pronounced myself satisfied.

Madelyn’s is a short distance from Stratford’s downtown, heading west along Huron Street, away from the theatre district. It’s a 20- to 30-minute walk from downtown but you may want to drive, especially if you have theatre tickets later. If you do walk, I would suggest strolling down Norman or Douglas Streets, which parallel Huron, where you will pass some of Stratford’s loveliest homes. Stratford Festival stars, past and present, have lived here.